Your lab has installed new software, which you hope will improve the quality and efficiency of its work. You want to get your staff up to speed as soon as possible so everyone can effectively use and benefit from the software without delay. But you find that your staff’s learning curve is considerable. How can training be made painless, quick, and successful?
Training staff to use new software has inherent challenges. If the software is meant to be used by the majority of the lab’s staff, then a mid-to-large size laboratory could have dozens or even hundreds of trainees. In such cases, it may not be possible for the software vendor to train everyone. Clearly, not everyone can get off the bench at the same time, nor does everyone work the same shift. Also, many laboratory organizations consist of physically separated facilities, which can also be challenging.
These challenges can be met, however—with “train-the-trainer” sessions. In this approach, the software vendor trains a select group of “super-users,” first. Those users, in turn, train the remaining staff. Some advantages of this approach include:
- Cost control: When vendors tell you the training is included in the price of the software system, this means the cost of training has been added to the price of the system. If more training is needed six months or a year later, that will likely be an add-on.
- Schedule simplification: Since you’re training your own lab staff with in-house trainers, there’s less potential for scheduling conflicts as opposed to using the vendor’s trainers, who must coordinate sessions with multiple lab clients.
- Solid knowledge base: While the initial group of core users provides training to others, they are themselves becoming increasingly proficient with the software. They become a core team who know the product and can always help users, without having to go to IT or vendor support for front-line questions.
- Ongoing training: With the knowledge brought in-house,
“refresher” training can be provided as needed. To accommodate new staff, you can schedule new user training as appropriate.
Like most good ideas, it only works, however, when it is well-executed. Here are some tips for making the most of in-house training.
Planning in advance
Trainers need to do a fair amount of planning in advance, and the vendor can help with that. The vendor can provide a list of training activities, starting with the easiest activities and getting progressively more sophisticated. Trainers need to determine how many sessions will be needed; there may be just one, but two or more may be needed for complicated systems. They must define the specific objectives for each session—that is, the software functions that staff should be able to complete by the time each session is complete. Then, for each session, the trainers need to create step-by-step “lesson plans.” One way to do this is to start with the desired outcome, and work backwards to discover the best way to bring their students to it. Trainers can revisit their own learning: how did they absorb and integrate this material—that is, in what order and at what pace? With the material divided into sessions and each session organized around objectives, the training will go more smoothly.
Grouping staff members
For most software systems there will be different types, or sub-groups, of lab users. User types are determined based on what those particular staff members are allowed to do with the software—such as, read-only users, editors, administrators, or system administrators. Each sub-group will have its own training session(s). Rule of thumb: the more the sub-group has to learn, the smaller the number of trainees it should have.
A common pitfall of software training sessions is trainers providing too much background information: what the software is, what it does, and why the lab has it. This strategy is meant to get the staff’s buy-in that the software is a positive change. This is, in fact, a critical part of the education of the lab’s users; however, it should take place weeks before the first training session. If staff are first hearing that they’ll need to learn to do things differently for the first time at the training session, then most of their questions and concerns will be around “why” the lab is doing it this way, instead of “how” to do it this way. Buy-in should be accomplished prior to training, or it will dominate the session, and training will suffer.
Providing hands-on interaction
Users that will be directly interacting with the software need to have hands-on training, including sitting at a computer workstation and actually using it. If users need to learn how to navigate through screens and retrieve or manipulate information, their training must include practice on those software functions as well. Trainers should walk users through each step on their computers, while providing constant support and instruction. The end goal: users can do it on their own.
Reinforcing through quizzes
Whether via pop quizzes along the way, or more formal tests at the end of the training session, evaluation is an effective tool for reinforcing what your users have learned; it’s also helpful for identifying areas that may need more emphasis and review. And yes, we’re all still the middle-schoolers we once were at heart: when it is most important for staff to remember certain software functions or how to use specific commands or screens, successful trainers tell them, “This will be on the test.” Even the people who aren’t in the front row will take notes on these points.
Train-the-trainer is a viable approach to learning new software, and not just from a cost standpoint. It also allows easy access to in-house experts, along with the ability to set up quick training sessions on an as-needed basis. The best way to take advantage of the power of the train-the-trainer approach is to follow a template that includes these five essential steps:
- Creating a training plan with measurable objectives
- Differentiating user groups and tailoring the training
- Making sure that buy-in takes place before the training
- Structuring the training for hands-on experience
- Quizzing staff to reinforce what they’ve learned.
With this process-based approach, lab leaders can get the most out of staff software training—and that’s definitely the key to getting the most out of a new software system.